Washington Watch: Biden warns climate forum of ‘point of no return’ without bolder action, agrees to methane cuts


The White House has corrected the target year for a carbon-free U.S. power sector after President Biden misspoke earlier. The targeted year is 2035. This story has been revised to reflect that correction.

President Joe Biden on Friday urged all nations to act to slow climate change or risk getting dangerously close to “a point of no return,” as pressure to replace pledges with action rises ahead of the highly anticipated November global climate-change conference in Glasgow.

“The time to act is really narrowing … to get too close to a point of no return, we don’t have a lot of time,” Biden said. “So we have to act, all of us. We have to act, and we have to act now.”

As expected, Biden confirmed a pact between the U.S. and the European Union to cut emissions of planet-warming methane gas by roughly a third by the end of this decade as compared with 2020 emissions.

Biden was reconvening what he calls the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate (MEF), an effort launched last Earth Day.

John Kerry, Biden’s special envoy on climate, has said that the Glasgow meetings, known as COP26, are key for the world powers to act to help the developing world and ward off the sharpest effects of climate change.

Under the previous Paris deal, nations vowed to prevent the world’s average temperature rising 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels in order to avoid deadly and destructive heatwaves, flooding, storms, drought, fire, coastal erosion and other consequences that are already populating headlines.

Read: Giant sequoias wrapped with flame-resistant blankets as wildfires advance

But new analysis out this week by Climate Action Tracker finds almost every country is falling short in curbing emissions of heat-trapping gases and other actions that will help them reach the commitment in a reasonable timeframe. Only one industrialized economy — the U.K. — is close to significantly slowing its emissions and financing cleaner energy for poorer countries.

After the Earth Day summit, enough nations had promised large enough carbon-pollution cuts that the Climate Action Tracker’s “emissions gap” — the difference between emissions projections with pledges and what’s required to meet the 1.5-degrees goal — dropped 11%. But Bill Hare, CEO of Climate Analytics, said momentum has since slowed.

Financial assistance for developing nations is newly emphasized in the tracker update. The U.S. and the European Union were marked down because of that category.

China, the world’s largest carbon emitter, and India, which is the third largest polluter behind the U.S., were both absent from Friday’s MEF attendees list.

China has set ambitious targets to reach carbon neutrality by 2060. But details on how it will get there have been spotty, and data show it has kept up coal production even while pushing electric vehicles. Republicans who contend Biden puts too much climate-change responsibility on the U.S. alone often point to China in their argument.

China is expected to be a Glasgow participant, though Chinese officials have warned Kerry that friction over trade between the two powers could impact cooperation on climate change.

See: U.S. nuclear-submarine pact with U.K. and Australia faces criticism from Paris and Beijing as it reshapes Indo-Pacific relations

Methane deal confirmed

The pact to cut methane emissions was first leaked earlier this week. The agreement, the first ever to specifically target methane, is seen as a major preliminary step ahead of Glasgow.

Methane is some 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide, CO2, but remains in the atmosphere for a shorter period, about a decade. Methane rules could have a significant impact on the energy CL00, agriculture and waste industries, which are responsible for the bulk of such emissions.

The methane pledge “will not only rapidly reduce the rate of global warming, but it will also produce a very valuable side benefit, like improving public health and agricultural output. We’re mobilizing support to help developing countries to join and pledge to do something significant,” Biden said.

Andrew Logan, senior director of oil and gas at sustainable-investing advocate Ceres, said targeting methane is a powerful tool in slowing global warming in the near term.

“We know that, even today, many emissions are entirely avoidable. Publicly available oil and gas company


data show wildly different emissions intensities between similarly sized operations,” he said. “That has to stop if we hope to hit critical climate deadlines.”

Controls on methane can help buy some time to implement additional controls on carbon dioxide sources, said Charles Driscoll, a civil and environmental engineering professor at Syracuse University.

“Controlling methane has the added benefit of improving air quality because it contributes to the formation of ground-level ozone,” he said. “Ozone is a substantial air quality and health concern in many regions of the U.S.”

The oil and gas industry, including trade group American Petroleum Institute, emphasize steps they’ve made in capturing methane leaks. They say added burden on the natural gas industry in particular could hurt what’s been a relatively low-cost boon for U.S. energy independence. They have written to Congress to oppose proposed legislation that would place a fee on methane.

“The methane pledge ‘will produce a very valuable side benefit, like improving public health and agricultural output.’”

— President Biden

Biden on Friday repeated his administration’s existing pledges focused on other parts of a “greener” economy.

“The United States is committed to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions between 50% and 52% below 2005 levels by the year 2030. And, you know, we set a goal that, by 2035, our power sector will be with free of carbon and in 2030, 50% of the cars sold in the United States we believe should be, must be electric vehicles,” Biden said.

The administration got some help from congressional Democrats this week when it pushed for greater tax incentives for EVs. Automobile-industry watchers believe the federal help is crucial to a faster swap of gas-engine cars for electric.

Opinion: Electric vehicles are gaining traction, but chances are that you’ll still be driving a gas-powered car in 2035

Victor Reklaitis contributed to this report.

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